San Francisco organizer Antonio Diaz and New Orleans organizer Anne Rolfes say that people will take to the streets on September 8 because rhetoric is not enough to fight the climate crisis

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore.

On September 13 and 14, local civic leaders will convene in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. They aim to ensure the goals of the Paris climate accord are met. But some say this might not be enough to fight catastrophic climate change. So on September 8, thousands in San Francisco and across the nation and world will take to the streets under the banner Rise for Climate. They’re demanding climate policy that prioritizes frontline communities and working people, and they say to create real change we need to stop all new fossil fuel projects and invest in policies that reduce emissions and create green jobs.

I have two guests with me to discuss this today. First we have Antonio Diaz, who’s the organizational director at People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights, or PODEER, in San Francisco. He’s also an organizer of the San Francisco anchor march. And Anne Rolfes is the founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. She’s an organizer of the Rise for Climate march in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thanks so much for joining me today.


ANTONIO DIAZ: Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: So just generally, could you give us a lay of the land? What can people expect from this Saturday’s actions, who’s participating, and why are you holding these?

ANNE ROLFES: Well, in Louisiana we’re calling ours Rise for Cancer Alley. And that’s a stretch of the Mississippi River where there is intense petrochemical production, and I think is really emblematic of why this event is taking place. Because every locale has their own Cancer Alley, has their own version of the cost that we all bear of petrochemical production and of our commitment to fossil fuels. And so around the country, there are over 250 actions taking place in almost every state in the United States, and around the world there are, there are over 600 actions taking place in 83 countries.

So it is a global movement. And here in Louisiana we’re really happy to be participants in this, and also to have the global movement at our backs and to have, you know, some moral support in what is, of course, a really big fight.

DHARNA NOOR: As I mentioned, though, four days later there’ll be another sort of mobilization of global actors, the Global Climate Action Summit, or GCAS, as it’s known, is chaired by civic leaders from the three countries with the highest CO2 emissions in the world. There’s former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a representative from the Indian conglomerate the Mahindra Group, the special representative for climate change affairs of China, two reps from the UN, and most publicly California Governor Jerry Brown.

I want to take a look at a video that climate advocacy group made about the 8th.

VIDEO: California is convening a special climate summit-

The summit will bring together all of the different groups that play a-

California is not waiting for Trump.

We know that you can talk the talk, but now it’s time to walk the walk.

Our message to local leaders needs to be inescapable. No more stalling. No more delays. It’s time to act.

This September 8, let’s show world leaders what real climate leadership looks like.

DHARNA NOOR: So, Antonio, you’re actually in this video. And here organizers are saying that they won’t let the Global Climate Action Summit be another empty political gesture. Talk about what you mean by that. What do you expect from GCAS, and what kinds of policies are you demanding?

ANTONIO DIAZ: Well, I think what we expect from GCAS, unfortunately, is more of the same. That is, rhetoric, making certain commitments to climate action. But as we’ve seen in California, oftentimes the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of what needs to happen on the ground. And by that I mean, for example, the market-based approach that has, the state of California has taken to solve the climate crisis is fundamentally flawed.

So we’re marching on September 8 under the banner of Rise for Climate Jobs and Justice to demand real climate leadership. And for us real climate leadership means, obviously, having solutions that keep fossil fuels in the ground. We need solutions that prioritize those solutions that are coming from the community, from those that are most impacted by these practices.

And finally, for us a real solution is really having a deep commitment to a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy economy for workers and communities, especially those most impacted.

DHARNA NOOR: And Anne in New Orleans, again, you’re focusing on stopping the Bayou Bridge pipeline, on the impacts of those affected in what’s called Cancer Alley. But talk about how the fight that you are waging in your locale have implications for national and global fights. For instance, the Bayou Bridge pipeline fight is a recent example of the criminalization of climate activism. Water protectors have been getting arrested while protesting. So talk about what the implications are for a bigger climate movement, and what your, what your demands are there.

ANNE ROLFES: Well, you know, Louisiana is in the deep South. It is the belly of petrochemical production. And one of the reasons that we take action here and are so happy to be a part of it is that we believe that resistance here really, really matters. That the fossil fuel interests and the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party, for that matter, are used to just owning this state. Are used to coming up with some horrible idea for a new pipeline like the Bayou Bridge pipeline and having it sail through, you know, having no real regulatory oversight at all. And so we believe that resistance here matters.

The Bayou Bridge pipeline matters in particular because it is the southern leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline. So it began in sacred Indigenous territory. It has come through all sorts of communities of color and vulnerable communities as it goes through the United States. But where is it going to end? In the town of St. James, specifically in a place called Freetown, which was, you know, obviously by its name founded by people who fought hard for their own emancipation. It’s an African-American town, and we believe there’s real significance, and it gives you a window into this, into this fossil fuel corporations, that it begins on Indigenous land, and it’s going to end in an African-American historic town.

And so, you know, we’re determined there, we’re determined to fight it no matter what levers of the state they may pull. They currently have police forces after some people who are protesting the pipeline. We’re in the courts battling them. You know, they have honestly ridiculous arguments in the courts. But they’re used to winning. And we need everybody in the streets, and that’s why we’re organizing on the 8th, because we need people to stand up to this industry. And we know that it can happen, that bigger forces have been beaten, but that it will take- it’ll take actions like the 8th.

DHARNA NOOR: So both of you have talked about how, you know, you’re prioritizing in the policies that you are demanding frontline communities, vulnerable communities. Often, of course, the people who are most affected by climate policy are poor people, people of color. But reports have found that some 50 percent of all Americans are in or near poverty. Here in Baltimore, which is a majority black working-class city, there is a climate movement, of course. But for many people, climate change isn’t really at the forefront of people’s minds. Folks are facing immediate issues like unemployment and violence. And when people do think about the environment it’s often about pollution and degradation. Climate isn’t really often on the political agenda. So what’s your message for people who aren’t really thinking about climate change in these terms, and how are you aiming to put climate change on the political agenda?

ANTONIO DIAZ: I would say that for us that climate issues are intimately related to the issues that you address in terms of poverty, in terms of racism. Specifically because, as you said, those communities are- a lot of communities, communities of color, immigrant communities are hit first and worst in terms of our changing climate. Also I would say that our, our vision of creating a just transition and a new livable economy rests on the fact that, as we tackle climate with that vision, we also have to address issues of economic and racial justice. They’re intertwined. We can’t address the climate crisis without fundamentally addressing these issues of economic and racial justice that plague our society.

DHARNA NOOR: You talked about a just transition, and in the U.S. you’re marching under the banner Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice. So I wanted to ask, in June the Democratic National Committee voted to ban contributions from fossil fuel companies. But they then reversed that decision. And top of official Tom Perez said that it was in part at least because of the concerns from unions, that this was an attack on workers. What’s your response to working people, or to people in organized labor that feel, or claim to feel that, you know, a sustainable policy could be an attack on jobs.

ANNE ROLFES: If I can jump in on this, where the jobs argument is used against us, you know, constantly as a kind of blackmail. You know, what the unions are prioritizing is new construction. Right? That is, that is absolutely what they are talking about. They are, they are always behind every new infrastructure project, no matter how intensely it may pollute their own union members.

And our answer to that in Louisiana is a common sense one. If we didn’t build any new projects, if we started now and said no new fossil fuel projects, which is of course one of our goals, there would still be thousands of jobs to be had in Louisiana, in the fossil fuel industry, simply maintaining the aging infrastructure that already exists. They have a leaking problem. They have a corrosion problem. Their infrastructure offshore on the oil rigs and onshore and their refineries is absolutely falling apart. You know, we have some photographs from one EPA inspection that actually showed a pipeline flaking off, it was so rusty. So union members should be put to work repairing that, maintaining that sort of infrastructure, not building new infrastructure.

And I think at some point common sense has got to kick in. You know, here in Louisiana, here we were just this week dodging another storm. You know, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to get flooded if we continue to just pump carbon into our atmosphere and warm it.

DHARNA NOOR: Antonio, do you want to jump in?

ANTONIO DIAZ: Yeah, the one thing I would add is that part of the vision for a just transition is to really grapple with a managed transition of a fossil fuel economy, recognizing that there are workers that will be impacted. But that there’s a need for job training and opportunities for workers, and communities, especially communities that have been left out of these sectors. It’s really exciting for me to see, you know, as someone that runs a grassroots Latinx environmental justice organization, organizing for the 8th, for the Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice mobilization has been a great opportunity to work with labor, to work with environmental groups, to work with social economic justice organization to, to organize this action. It’s really cross[electoral], bringing in a lot of people that are concerned about climate, but, about how climate issues and the opportunities to transition off a fossil fuel economy provides a great pathway for all of us to continue to work together.

DHARNA NOOR: And again, Antonio, you’re organizing in California and San Francisco. And I want to talk about Jerry Brown, who is, again, sort of the most public chair of GCAS. He’s also kind of become the unofficial spokesperson of U.S. climate policy. But he’s clashed with environmentalists over his lack of action to stop fracking. At the Bonn climate talks last year he was booed when in response to activists shouting “Keep it in the ground,” he said, “Let’s put you in the ground.” What are your demands of Governor Brown? What are some of the things he’s gotten right or wrong on climate policy?

ANTONIO DIAZ: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think I would say that it’s hard to have the notion of Brown as a climate leader be something that’s true when under his leadership, under his governorship, there have been more than 20,000 drilling permits that have been issued. It’s hard to think about how Brown can be a climate leader when the permits for oil and gas drilling continue down the pipeline. So I think that there’s something up how the rhetoric, rhetoric doesn’t match the actions.

A lot of it has to do with the issues that Anne spoke about, which is the power of the oil and gas industry in the state of California. I think it’s true that California can be a state of resistance to Trumpism, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not facing the same pressures by certain vested interests that have their own profit, bottom lines as their prime consideration, as opposed to the health of communities, health of the planet. So I think that there’s that distinction that needs to be, to be understood.

The other thing I would say is that, you know, Brown is out of office in two months. So in many respects, this is not also solely about Brown. It’s about what comes after Brown, and making sure that the new governor is clear that there’s a strong vibrant climate movement in the state of California, and that we expect more.

DHARNA NOOR: Anne, maybe you can answer this. So last year, thousands of people gathered for the People’s Climate March and sister marches across the country and the world. And much of the messaging there was focused on the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations. The marches took place on Trump’s 100th day as president. Similar to what Antonio was just saying about Jerry Brown, this march was poised as a sort of foil to Trump’s policies. Talk about what impact, if any, those mobilizations have, and why this year you’re choosing to focus on something other than Trump’s policies; on local policies, and on holding even folks in the Democratic Party accountable.

ANNE ROLFES: Well, I don’t think there’s any question that being in the streets and showing that there is a movement to move away from fossil fuels, I don’t think there’s any question that that has an impact. Look, in Louisiana they know now that when they go to lay a pipeline, they are going to be met with people in the flesh who are resisting putting that pipeline in the ground. One of the leading oil and gas associations here in Louisiana now keeps its board meetings secret, and it never did that before, because they know there is so much resistance to what’s happening. And so I think that the climate has really changed for them in terms of their own operations. And that now they are under siege. And it’s great that they’re feeling it. And they ought to know that they’re under siege because their business model of ruining the planet is no longer one that we will accept.

And so yeah, at the moment it starts at the top with the Trump administration. But I mean, I think we all know that under Obama, although there were some great strides made, and although of course he certainly was better than Trump, there were some really problematic things happening. I mean, here in Louisiana, you know, we appreciated, for example, the Clean Power Plan. But there was still the community of St. Rose that was getting gassed every week by a Shell refinery. And we actually had the ear of the top administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. We were in consistent communication with her. And yet the federal government would never send in a SWAT team to shut that place down and protect people.

So you know, it’s- of course the one political party is much worse. But the Democrats [inaudible] from the oil industry. And certainly in Louisiana it’s equal opportunity for corruption. And it’s why events like the 8th are very, very important, because, you know, we the people don’t want that model anymore. And being in the streets is one way that we deliver that message.

DHARNA NOOR: And of course it’s hard to link any one weather event to climate change. But both of you are organizing in places that have certainly been impacted by changes in weather and climate in very visible and devastating ways. California forest fires killed seven people this summer. From 2011-2017 California experienced one of its worst droughts since the state began keeping record. And since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the city has seen so many other catastrophic storms. It’s hurricane season now. We were just talking about how a hurricane narrowly missed New Orleans. Talk about the stakes of this fight, and what happens if leaders don’t take action on climate change.

ANNE ROLFES: Well, if I can give you one example of some bad weather that actually was very clearly connected to climate. In August of 2016 there was flooding in areas where there had never been flooding before, near Baton Rouge in a place called Denham Springs, and lots of other communities. And shortly after that, the Obama administration’s NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, conducted a study. And their study found that there was not a question; that those August 2016 floods came about because the climate was warmer. And the climate was warmer because of fossil fuel burning. And so that is a study that we think is very important, that does absolutely show that one particular devastating weather happening here in Louisiana was because of our insistence on pursuing fossil fuels.

ANTONIO DIAZ: Yes. And as you said, the fires that we’ve had, the drought here in California, you know, are symptoms of this climate crisis that we’re facing. Which is why, for example, part of the leadership team organizing the march on the 8th are folks from the North Bay, that have witnessed firsthand, that had members from the organizations whose homes were burned down to those devastating fires.

And indeed, I think that, as I mentioned, the time for rhetoric is way past over, and we need concrete actions. Part of the concrete action is definitely a commitment to keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and working towards lifting up community-led solutions and just transition to a 100 percent renewable energy economy.

ANNE ROLFES: You know, if I can just make one more comment about the sort of gap between rhetoric and action. You know, if Jerry Brown is a Democratic governor- so is our governor. His name is John Bell Edwards. He has had really clear rhetoric on this pipeline, on the Bayou Bridge pipeline. He has said, you know, he’s all for it. But he is going to make sure that it is installed according to the law. Well, look. At this minute Bayou Bridge pipeline company is installing pipeline on land that they have no legal right to. They never got the legal rights. They never filed the papers with the courts. And they are installing that pipeline. They’re mowing down trees, they have dug a trench, they are now arresting people who are trying to protect that land, not in accordance with the law.

So here’s a pretty simple action that our government can take to live up to his own words. Jerry Brown, you know, could give him a call and that lean on him to live up to his own words. You know, there’s a long, long way to go as far as the gap. And again, that’s why we’re taking action on Saturday.

ANTONIO DIAZ: You know, the only thing I would add is we welcome, obviously, folks to come out to the streets of San Francisco. We’re organizing what will be the largest climate mobilization that the West Coast has ever seen. So folks can hit the streets with us and raise with our voices the need for real climate leadership.

DHARNA NOOR: Well, Anne and Antonio, thanks so much for coming on today. Antonio, I will see you in San Francisco and in the Bay Area for the week of climate mobilizations next week, and we hope to speak with both of you to see what’s come of your demands and the state of your movement, and what comes next after the 8th.

ANNE ROLFES: Great. Thanks so much.

ANTONIO DIAZ: Thank you.


Dharna Noor

Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.